The primeval tradition of all mankind

Temple ScrollMost of the 36 books comprising the Old Testament were written in the first millennium BC, and were products of a literate civilisation. Israel reached that stage as it adapted to the new institution of monarchy, principally under David (1007–967 BC). A standing army required officials responsible for the procurement of horses and chariots, the construction of city fortifications, the provision of food and accommodation, and the transactions had to be accounted for. The centrally administered religious system required a large staff of priests in a variety of roles, supported by nation-wide tithing. Often the importation of metals and timber was done at state level, in which case it required authorisation and documentation. The king had his own treasury and a large household. Among his officials were a chief secretary and a chief recorder, responsible for the production and archiving of royal annals, tax records, official letters, legal and royal decisions. The development and maintenance of the skills needed to sustain such machinery would also have been mostly centralised. There was no system of state education, and most people would not have been able to read or write. Children learned what they needed to know from their parents.

Nonetheless, Israel had never been totally illiterate. In the wilderness years of 1447–1407 BC, Moses wrote down the nation’s laws and early history in five scroll-length books known as the Pentateuch, and although for most of his life he had been a member of Egypt’s royal household, where everyone was literate, he would have written the books not in hieratic (a cursive simplification of hieroglyphs) but in the same alphabetic script that, centuries later, David’s officials used. It was, indeed, invented by the Israelites. For more than a century the Israelites had been slaves. Before then, some individual conversant with both the Egyptian and Hebrew language had hit on the idea of simplifying the system in which hieroglyphs represented syllables or complete ideas by making some of the symbols represent only consonants. Since these could represent any word, the other symbols could be ignored. The new script was not only much easier to learn, but it explicitly marked the user as non-Egyptian. Some of the Israelites became as literate as their masters.

It was a different script for a different language, eventually setting apart the northwest-Semitic-speaking peoples from their Mesopotamian and Egyptian neighbours. ‘Aleph’ and ‘bet’ were Hebrew words, meaning ‘ox’ and ‘house’, but the Egyptian hieroglyphs for them were stylised to such a degree that the reader understood that they symbolised only the sounds (aleph was originally a glottal consonant rather than a vowel). Along with twenty other signs that were chosen to represent the consonants of their language, the letters spelt words that had nothing to do with ‘ox’ and ‘house’. A mere twenty-two signs could symbolise any number of words.

Scholars call the script ‘proto-Sinaitic’ or ‘proto-Canaanite’, because the earliest examples come from Sinai, where Egypt controlled mines worked by slaves who came from Canaan, i.e. Hebrews. The 13th-Dynasty Brooklyn Papyrus, dating from just before Moses’s birth, lists 95 slaves in the area around Thebes. Almost half of them have Semitic names. Among these are Menahema, a feminine form of Menahem (2 Ki 15:14), Ashera, a feminine form of Asher (Gen 30:13) and Shiphrah, the name of one of the Hebrew midwives (Ex 1:15). The list accords well with the Israelites’ own testimony that they were then slaves in the country (Rohl 1995).

In his early childhood Moses was brought up by his own mother, so would have been fluent in Semitic as well as Egyptian. Most probably he also learned the alphabetic script from her; otherwise, he would have learned it while he lived in Midian. One may also suppose that God wrote the ten commandments for him in the alphabetic script. Conversely, numerous Egyptian loan-words in the Hebrew account attest the author’s familiarity with the Egyptian language (Noonan 2016).

The books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy set out not only the moral, ritual and social code that was to govern the nation, but also the historical circumstances in which they were given it. In contrast to the history of every other nation, the law was in place before the Israelites had even their own land, let alone any form of government. Communication of the law was primarily by word of mouth (Deut 4:14, 6:7), but written documentation of it was also necessary to keep it from getting corrupted. Moses finished writing Deuteronomy just before his death (Deut 31:24ff) and of course there must have been readers who could read what he had written. Moses’s successor, Joshua, was certainly literate, as were some of his contemporaries (Jos 18:4–9). One of his duties was to erect an altar on Mount Ebal in the north of Canaan, cover the stones with plaster and inscribe them with the law (Deut 27:1–8, Jos 8:32).

Deuteronomy was brought close to its final form by Samuel, c. 1050 BC. Immediately after confirming Saul as Israel’s first king, Samuel ‘told the people the rights and duties of kingship; he wrote them in a book and laid it up before Yahweh’ (I Sam 10:25). Deuteronomy set out those rights and duties, including the instruction that after taking the throne the king was to have a copy of the law written for him in the presence of the priests and was to read from it daily (Deut 17:18-19). Samuel also kept royal annals, as did the prophet Nathan and the seer Gad. Their works were the main sources for the first book of Chronicles (I Chr 29:29).

The Table of Nations

Before the book of Exodus comes Genesis. While Genesis itself offers no clues concerning its composition, tradition has always ascribed it to Moses, and it is difficult to see who else might have had the personal maturity and literary skills to account for its authorship. The amount of archaeologically verified cultural detail suggests that its source material, whether written or oral, must have been ancient. Doubtless the work assumed an ever more literary nature as it was updated and stylistically refined in succeeding centuries.

The Table of Nations, immediately after Genesis’s account of the Deluge, acts as a bridge between the antediluvian world and the age characterised by cities, empires and gods, what the New Testament calls the last age. That the section drew on written sources may be inferred from the way it describes the territory of the Canaanites. The eastern border is indicated by the directions ‘as you go toward Sodom and Gomorrah and Admah and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha.’ All but the last of these cities were destroyed in the time of Abraham, five centuries before Moses, yet are assumed to be places that a traveller would still encounter. Lasha is never mentioned again in the Bible and may also have been a ruin. The directions are obsolete, as if copied from an ancient document.

On one occasion the text says that the time of the patriarchs was different from that of the monarchy, evidently looking back from a much later period. After an abbreviated genealogy of ‘Seir the Horite’ (after whom Mount Seir was named) it comments that the mentioned kings ‘were reigning in the land of Edom before any king reigned over the Israelites’ (Gen 36:31). Likewise, where a place name has become obsolete, the updated text also gives the contemporary name, showing a willingness to add material where this will help contemporary readers but an unwillingness simply to replace the obsolete name. The only known exception is the substitution of the divine name Yahweh for what would have been the current proper name. Even here the anachronism is pointed out later (Ex 6:3).

Another example of historical self-consciousness is where Laban and Jacob make a covenant, marking the occasion by a pile of stones (Gen 31:43ff). Jacob calls the stones ‘Galeed’, but Laban calls them ‘Jegar-sahadutha’, meaning in Hebrew and Aramaic respectively ‘The pile of witness’. Laban was an inhabitant of upper Mesopotamia. The fact that the two relatives spoke different languages – Abraham having adopted the language of Canaan when he settled there – is remembered in the tradition about them and, in this neat unobtrusive way, recorded. Everywhere else in the story Laban speaks Hebrew, not because this is what he actually spoke, but because it was the language of those reading the story.

Family tree of the Afro-Asiatic languages. The pattern of diversification closely correlates with patterns of migration from East Africa during the Palaeolithic.Languages change over time and Hebrew was no exception. Like Akkadian, which was Abraham’s mother tongue, Hebrew descended from Semitic, which descended from a still older language in the Afro-Asiatic family; it was not created de novo. Just in the eight hundred years from Moses to Josiah it would have changed a great deal, both in grammar and vocabulary, and the comparative modernity of Genesis’s language indicates that there must have been occasions when the whole text was updated, much as a modern version of the Bible in English is different from Wyclif’s medieval version. The language of the book of Genesis is late Hebrew, despite some archaic vocabulary and archaic turns of phrase. The word-plays and etymologies in the creation story depend specifically on Hebrew (Adam, for example, refers to his having been taken from the adamah, meaning ‘ground’), though this does not preclude their having also worked in the original language.

Linguistic and ethnic genealogies traced the same paths. Languages diverged most rapidly when the peoples who spoke them separated, and peoples were defined by their shared language and ancestry. Ultimately, all peoples descended from Noah, but the ancestor who gave the tribe its identity was the man who led it to the land where it eventually settled. Accordingly, Genesis 10 arranges the genealogy of Noah’s sons ‘by their tribes, their languages, in their lands, by their nations.’ ‘From these the nations separated on the earth after the Deluge.’ At the time of writing the peoples were now settled, though of course future history would still witness large-scale migrations. Many of the names feature later as place names, but here they are names of individuals and peoples.

Abraham and his descendants defined themselves ethnically as Hebrews, descendants of Eber, the head of the group that first put down roots in the country. The genealogy is of course abbreviated. It certainly encompasses more than hundreds of years, and it could encompass more than a few thousand – apart from a plausible minimum the text does not indicate. Since the first generations were what defined the tribe, the maintenance of a continuous genealogy after them would have been superfluous. One had a sufficient sense of one’s kinship within the tribe from being able to name the founding generations, in this case Arphaxad, Shelah and Eber, and from personally knowing one’s own father and grandfather, in this case Terah and Nahor. Further down the line, the Israelites defined their ethnic identity by their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (renamed Israel). They became ‘the sons of Israel’, a subgroup of ‘the sons of Eber’.

If we place the Hebrew language within the genealogy determined by modern linguists we get a similar picture (Fig.). Hebrew descends from Akkadian, the language of northern Mesopotamia and attested there from the second half of the third millennium. This was just when writing had developed sufficiently to represent a recognisable language. Akkadian later evolved into an early form of Aramaic, first attested in the 8th century BC. Back in time, Akkadian descended from Semitic, the ancestor of languages spoken also in Arabia (Seqotri) and Ethiopia (Geez, Tigrai, Harari and Amharic). Still further back, Semitic was closely related to Egyptian. It is clear that the ancestors of the people who spoke Akkadian migrated to Mesopotamia from north-east Africa.

Another branch of Afro-Asiatic gave rise to the Cushomotic languages. In apparent contradiction, the Table of Nations has Egypt and Ethiopia (Cush) descending from Ham, not Shem. But that is because originally all peoples on earth spoke some form of Afro-Asiatic. As defined by its modern borders a country such as Egypt could be peopled by any number of tribes, with some tracing their ancestry back to Ham, others to Shem. All macrofamilies other than Afro-Asiatic originated geographically from the division of human language at Babel, where c. 3000 BC speakers of unrelated languages began to spread across the earth and supplant existing languages. The peoples of northern Africa and Arabia were, by and large, the only ones to escape this Early Bronze Age revolution.

The Table of Nations was written from the perspective of someone living in the Ancient Near East, with particular focus on the peoples who lived in and around Canaan. It was not intended to be a genealogy of the whole world. Two interpolations in the nature of footnotes set the context for the story about Babel in the next chapter. The shorter one places the confusion of language in relation to the Shem–Abram genealogy: ‘In Peleg’s days the earth was divided.’ The other one places it in relation to the rise of Mesopotamia’s first king, Nimrod:
The beginning of his kingship was Babel, Uruk and Akkad all of them, in the land of Shinar. From that land he went into Assyria and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Kalhu, and the canals between Nineveh and Kalhu, that is, the great city.

‘Shinar’ is lower Mesopotamia, and ‘Assyria’ – the anglicised form of Asshur – is upper Mesopotamia. In this sense ‘Assyria’ is anachronistic, since upper Mesopotamia was not called Assyria until the city called Asshur took control of it some time after the 12th century BC (so the table itself cannot have been finalised until after the 12th century). The city, in turn, was named after its founder, whose ancestry ultimately went back to Shem (Gen 10:22).

Archaeological remains of the city date back to c. 2900 BC, possibly even further. By the 8th century upper Mesopotamia had become a powerful empire and had three capitals: Nineveh, Asshur and Kalhu. Rehoboth-Ir in the biblical text (‘city of wide streets’) is unattested but probably refers to Asshur, the different name distinguishing the city from the region. So the interpolation gives background not only for the Babel story but for Israel’s contemporary experience, since in 722 BC Assyria annexed Israel’s northern kingdom and deported its population back to the land from which their ancestor had come.

Asshur, finally, was also the name of an Assyrian god. That the god was the selfsame person as a man of that name – deified after his death – is supported by the fact Asshur had no particular identity as a god. He lacked other cult centres except where Assyrians established them, and he lacked the connections which genealogically united all the other major gods and goddesses (Lambert 1983). He also differed from the others in not being attributed any power of nature.

Statuette of the Late Uruk ruler corresponding to the biblical Nimrod.Nimrod dates to the Late Uruk period, that is, the late 4th millennium. By then, urban life in Mesopotamia was well established – the large settlements mentioned in Genesis 10:10-11 were far from the only ones – and proto-cuneiform was developing in order to serve the administrative needs of a nascent state. Initially the script was just a means of pictorially symbolising the nature and quantity of taxed or traded commodities, but as the pictographs became more abstract, so did the system itself, so that other wedge combinations were invented to symbolise not only external objects but words, that is, sounds that were themselves symbols, whether of ideas or of grammatical particles. By the 26th century the script was capable of representing complete sentences and used to write down entire myths, epics, and cultic hymns. These works were transcriptions of what already existed as elements of oral culture, and literature would remain subservient to the spoken word. Written compositions were works designed for listening to, in a communal setting. Silent reading to oneself was unknown in the ancient world until the AD era.

When we go further back in Genesis to the chapters adumbrating society before the Deluge, we enter a period long before writing. Man had lived without writing for most of his existence, and if these first chapters have any claim to be reliable historical information, it can only be because they preserved stories that had passed down the generations orally. An authorised version of primeval history must already have existed. Much as Moses would one day instruct Israel (Deut 6:7), parents were duty-bound to make sure that the account was committed to memory word for word.
These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.

The Creation and Adam’s transgression were essential to making sense of life, and so too now was the Deluge. Noah simply brought the history up to date. Of course, just as before the Deluge, as people spread out and multiplied, the tradition got corrupted, largely by a process of Chinese whispers. Over time, the fear of God declined, and fewer and fewer parents observed the command.

The tradition amongst non-Hebrew peoples
If Genesis derived from an oral tradition that ultimately went back all the way to the Creation, we might hope to find traces of it persisting in the traditions of peoples who could not have had contact with Genesis as a written text.

Surprisingly, we find more than traces. Take, for example, this excerpt from the Egyptian text ‘Instructions for Merikare’ (c. 2100 BC) (Demidchik 2011), giving the 10th-Dynasty king Merikare advice about how to rule:
Shepherd the people, the cattle of God.
It is for their sake that he created heaven and earth,
and he stilled the raging [or demon] of the waters.
He made the breath of life for their nostrils.
They are his images who came forth from his body,
and he rises in the heaven for their sake.
For them he created plants and cattle, fowl and fish to sustain them.

While this is not a perfect rendition of the Genesis account, it is very close. God is identified with Ra, who manifests himself as the Sun, Creator of heaven and earth (Gen 1:1). At the Creation he bid the waters flee, as in poetic mode the Bible also says (Job 26:12, Ps 89:10, 104:7). He breathed into man’s nostrils the breath of life (Gen 2:7) and made him in his image, in his physical likeness (Gen 1:27). He also created plants (Gen 1:11) and cattle (Gen 1:25), birds and fish (Gen 1:21).

The Book of the Dead is a collection of magic spells intended to assist the dead in their journey through the Underworld. Atum, the Creator, addresses the divine prophet Thoth:
What is it that has come about through the children of Nut [goddess of heaven]? They have made war, they have raised up tumult, they have done wrong, they have created rebellion, they have carried out slaughter. … I will dispatch the Elders and destroy all that I have made. The earth shall return to the Abyss, to the surging flood, as in its original state. (Faulkner 1985)

The history of the antediluvian world, culminating in the Deluge, has been transformed into a mystery which only the initiate can enter into. The children of Nut, the ‘sons of God’ in Genesis 6 and equivalent to Atrahasis’s Igigi, have instigated a rebellion against God affecting all humanity. God/Ra regrets having made the earth. After the Deluge, he appoints Horus, sitting on the throne in the person of his pharaonic re-incarnations, to reign in his place.

At the heart of traditional African religion, according to John Mbiti was the belief that God created all things, beneficently provided for his creation, and ruled over it. He was understood to be good, merciful, holy, all-powerful, all-knowing, everywhere present, never changing, self-existent. The Pygmies said of him, ‘God was the first. He has always existed, and will never die.’ Being unknowable, he played almost no part in religious life. He was not represented by images, as other gods and spirits were, and he had no priests or temples. Many traditions held that he had once been close to men and had intended that they should live forever, but soon they committed some misdeed.

The original paradise was lost: men’s direct link with God was severed or eclipsed, the closeness between the heavens and the earth was replaced by a vast gap without a bridge, the gifts of immortality and resurrection melted away, and death, disease and disharmony came.

This might well be a summary of Genesis 3, where the first humans disobeyed their maker and ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Through that act they became intimately acquainted with good and evil. They forfeited the opportunity to eat of the tree of life and were expelled from the garden.

In his twelve-volume work Der Ursprung der Gottesidee (‘The Origin of the Idea of God’), published between 1912 and 1955, Wilhelm Schmidt assembled a mass of anthropological evidence which countered the assumption that monotheism emerged after other forms of religion. The peoples who most clearly recognised a morally exalted supreme being, an all-powerful creator from whom mankind became alienated, were those who were historically and geographically most remote from civilisation.

Konrad Preuss, director of Germany’s National Museum in Berlin and a pioneer of the theory that magic lay at the root of religion, came to the same conclusion. In a paper entitled ‘The high god amongst culturally impoverished peoples’ he observed (1922):

All students of the subject who have deliberately concerned themselves with these supreme deities now agree that they are not the last stage of a development, the headstone of the corner in the temple reared by human thought to its gods, but may be an early religious testimony. In fact there are cases in which the only information we possess is that such a single god exists.

This was also the finding of Mircea Eliade in his far-ranging study Patterns in Comparative Religion. Monotheism not only predated but was ancestral to polytheism. Gods multiplied in response to the need for a more personal, accessible and useful religion, and myths developed to explain their origin and character. In the process, the supreme being lost much of his significance as creator and sustainer of the world, because he was, or seemed, too remote.

Wherever scholars came into contact with peoples yet untouched by Western civilisation, they discovered that the Hebrew story about the beginning of things was far from alone. Memories of a cataclysmic flood were as widely distributed across the earth as traditions of a Creator (e.g. Riem 1925). In the 19th century George Catlin spent fourteen years of his life amongst various tribes of North, Central and South America. Of particular interest was the O-kee-pa ceremony of the Mandan tribe, in which they made sacrifices to the waters. Failure to perform the ritual, they believed
would bring upon them a repetition of the calamity which their traditions say once befell them, destroying the whole human race, excepting one man, who landed from his canoe on a high mountain in the West.

This tradition, however, was not peculiar to the Mandan tribe, for amongst one hundred and twenty different tribes that I have visited in North and South and Central America, not a tribe exists that has not related to me distinct or vague traditions of such a calamity, in which one, or three, or eight persons were saved above the waters, on the top of a high mountain. Some of these, at the base of the Rocky Mountains and in the plains of Venezuela, and the Pampa del Sacramento in South America, make annual pilgrimages to the fancied summits where the antediluvian species were saved in canoes or otherwise, and, under the mysterious regulations of their medicine (mystery) men, tender their prayers and sacrifices to the Great Spirit, to ensure their exemption from a similar catastrophe.

As in the Hebrew tradition, a deluge destroyed the human race except for one family, who survived in a boat and landed on a mountain. Eliade mentions another example:

In the Andaman archipelago, among one of the most primitive peoples of Asia, Puluga is the Supreme Being. Puluga created the world, and the first man, Tomo. Mankind multiplied and had to disperse, and after the death of Tomo grew ever more forgetful of its creator. One day Puluga got angry and a flood covered the whole earth and destroyed mankind: only four people escaped. Puluga had mercy on them, but men still remained recalcitrant. Having once and for all reminded them of his commandments the god withdrew, and men have never seen him since.

How was one to account for the similarities? Obviously they could not be ascribed to direct contact between the peoples of the Near East and the newly discovered tribes. Nor could they be ascribed to contact with modern bearers of the Hebrew tradition, such as missionaries. Often the parallels were closest amongst tribes who, at the time their traditions were documented, were the most isolated from European culture. The stories arose before the arrival of Western visitors, and in cases where contact with missionaries might have been a possibility, the degree of transformation made recent borrowing unlikely. The natives related the events as if they had happened in their own country and been remembered through their own traditions. James Frazer ventured that the similarities were due, at least partly, ‘to similar, but quite independent, experiences either of great floods or of phenomena which suggested the occurrence of great floods, in many different parts of the world’. But this too is problematic. Not many countries are prone to region-wide flooding, and in mountainous areas not even the foothills get submerged. In some cases the similarities to the Hebrew story were too specific for them to have been generalised from different events, and nearly always there was a strong sense that the deluge happened at a time remote from the present, when the deity was more visibly involved with the lives of men. The event was unique, not such as might have occurred at any time and occasionally been repeated.

The spread of man out of Africa (after Bar-Yosef) compared with the locations of some of the most ancient Afro-Asiatic languages. Migrations parallel those reflected in the Afro-Asiatic family tree).

The obvious explanation is that, long ago, a uniquely devastating deluge did in fact occur, with the shared elements in the traditions deriving from survivors who had told of their experience. Now distributed across the world, the traditions pointed back to a time before the Stone Age when man was concentrated in one community, spoke the same language and looked back on a common past. For a considerable time after the Deluge God continued to abide with man and instruct him in how to live, as some of the myths testified (the Andaman tradition, for example). That was why man had not then dispersed across the earth. Indeed there could have been few regions stable enough for human habitation. So he stayed put, and as long as God remained with him, his memory of the Deluge and the events leading up to it passed down the generations intact. The ancient Egyptians referred to this place as God’s Land and located it in Punt, probably in the vicinity of the Gash delta in eastern Sudan, a few hundred kilometres from where the oldest human fossils are found across the border in northern Ethiopia. It was only in the Pliocene that people began to explore lands beyond Africa. Human genomic data, remarkably, have been used to infer a similar origin, about 400 km north of the Gash delta (Wohns et al. 2022).

There is thus a strong case that Genesis was grounded in a tradition that was once common to all mankind. Man lost that memory only as writing came to replace oral tradition as – paradoxically perhaps in the modern age – writing came to replace oral tradition and remembered knowledge died. Fortunately, western anthropologists of the 19th and first half of the 20th century wrote down the elements of it before it was lost, performing a task similar to that which the writer of Genesis performed in his own time. In doing so they found that the rest of the world had much the same memory of the deep past that the Hebrews had, albeit subsequently obscured by thousands of years of degradation and radical changes in theological perception.

That has not generally been the interpretation, however. It is sobering to reflect that western Christendom has gone through a theological revolution not dissimilar to the one that the Sumerians instituted. Just as their myths reduced Noah’s global mabbul to a relatively insignificant flood around Shuruppak, so did ours. At the same time as anthropologists beyond the horizons of the western world were discovering surprising corroborations of the Hebrew tradition, Darwin and others were exploring the continents in search of a different story. In a further episode of forgetting, while we often hear about the voyages of HMS Beagle, the discoveries which inspired the work of Catlin, Lang or Schmidt have been swept aside. Unable to believe that traditions about the Creation and the Deluge could have been rooted in history, Earth scientists advance an account of the world that they have worked out independent of historical knowledge. Intolerant of alternatives, they promote their anti-God understanding of the world with religious fervour. The contrast is jarring. ‘We are survival machines,’ writes one (Dawkins 1976), ‘robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.’ The words encapsulate Darwinism at its most extreme: a theory of reality produced by a machine without so much as a ghost within him, programmed by no intelligence. As they foist upon us these dark paradoxes, our intellectual leaders not only deny their own human nature but ignore the entire testimony of human cultural memory.

See also:
The tradition in ancient Sumer